Conservative Christian Teenagers Prepare for Politics

Teens, got summer plans? For a lucky few, maybe foreign travel or wilderness expeditions await. Others probably have to choose between scooping ice cream and mowing lawns. How about getting an early start on your run for political office?

That’s the plan for the adolescents headed to iGovern Summer Leadership Camp, a week-long gathering of conservative Christian teenagers. They’ll participate in political simulations and listen to an array of prominent guest speakers, including leaders from Focus on the Family and Concerned Women for America, as well as Congressional representatives Mike Pence and Michele Bachmann, two Tea Party favorites with presidential aspirations.

Most iGovern participants are homeschooled, because the organization running the show is a civic education program for homeschoolers called Generation Joshua. GenJ (as it is fondly called by its more than 5,000 teenage members) is a division of the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), the world’s largest and most influential homeschool advocacy organization. “Generation Joshua is engaged in the battle for the hearts, minds, and futures of America’s youth,” proclaims Will Estrada, GenJ’s director. “Our goal is to ignite a vision in young people to help America return to her Judeo-Christian foundations.”

The Generation Joshua experience combines online components with periodic opportunities for face-to-face interaction and real-world political engagement. The online elements of the program include civics coursework, adult-moderated “chats” about current events, and thousands of bulletin-board forums where students can post entries on topics ranging from immigration reform and international relations to popular movies and rules for courtship.

The real power of the GenJ experience, however, is the opportunity for genuine political involvement. Students are encouraged to participate in summer camps such as iGovern, voter registration drives, regional clubs, and an intriguing feature called Student Action Teams (SATs). These adult-supervised teams of students engage directly with the political process through participation in electoral campaigns. Several prominent politicians credit the efforts of GenJ’s SATs with their campaign victories, most recently Rep. Tom McClintock, who won California’s 4th Congressional district by a mere 2,000 votes. “Generation Joshua fielded over 100 volunteers who walked precincts in a driving rain, and made thousands of phone calls throughout the weekend to every targeted voter in the district,” McClintock remarked. “I can confidently say that those 2,000 votes were Generation Joshua votes.”

Such praise is heady stuff for teenagers who want to feel they can make a difference in their world, who yearn for a sense of efficacy and belonging. More specifically, it assures them that the world of politics is understandable and accessible, and can be a means to shape the world to reflect their values and commitments.

I’ve spent the past seven years following the activities of Generation Joshua, as well as traveling the country and talking with conservative Christian homeschoolers about what they’re doing and why. One thing that quickly became clear is that describing the “typical homeschooler” is next to impossible, and even within the conservative Christian subset, a wide variety of philosophies, methods, and outcomes exists. One core characteristic, however, stands out: the fundamental conviction of parents that educating their children is a God-given right and responsibility, and one they can delegate only at great moral and spiritual peril. For conservative Christians, homeschooling is a shaping not only of intellect but—even more crucially—of character.

Developing character is more than just learning to choose between moral rights and wrongs; for these homeschoolers, it emerges from the inculcation of an overarching worldview that guides those moral choices. Conservative Christian homeschool parents share a fierce determination to instill this type of character, to communicate a particular story to their children about the world and their place in it. As a result, this God-infused narrative is woven into as much of the homeschool learning experience as possible, with the idea that the intellectual life only finds meaning when it aligns with religious truth, and the sanctity of sacred scriptures trumps all human sources of knowledge and understanding.

The curricula most popular with conservative Christian homeschoolers seek to integrate faith and intellect, whether by detailing the congruence between scientific research and religious doctrine, using literature to illustrate doctrinal truths, or simply providing illustrations and examples with religious content. As one curriculum publisher notes on its Web site, “The most original source is always the Word of God, the only foundation for true scholarship in any area of human endeavor.” For most conservative Christian homeschooling texts, it is not a simple case of adding or subtracting information from what a public school student might encounter. Instead, it is a reframing of the entire subject, the telling of a fundamentally different story, one in which God plays the central role. As one history textbook affirms, “Students will learn to recognize the hand of God in history and to appreciate the influence of Christianity in government, economics, and society.”

The political vision of Generation Joshua and iGovern rests on this historical narrative of America as a chosen nation, one not only founded on Christian principles but desperately needing to return to those roots today. Like the conservative Christians striving to influence the content of public school textbooks in Texas, GenJ presents a competing vision of what America should be, and exhorts its students to recognize the pivotal role they can play in making that vision a reality.

In many ways, GenJ and its iGovern camps are a compelling example of genuine civic engagement. In fact, in my ten years of teaching public high school English and social studies, I rarely encountered students whose civic knowledge, skills, and participation matched those of GenJ participants. (The most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress civics assessment in 2006 bears this out as well, with only 27 percent of high school seniors scoring at or above “proficient.”)

Ideological Amplification

But as a training ground for future citizens and leaders, GenJ seems to be missing something vital. Rather than framing democratic citizenship as a shared endeavor among a diverse people, where compromise and accommodation are not only necessary but often desirable, GenJ promotes a vision of adversarial political engagement informed by narrow ideological boundaries.

One of the things that’s so compelling about Generation Joshua for these Christian youths is the cultivation of group identity and purpose. Many conservative Christians see themselves as an embattled minority desperately resisting the growing secular society around them. This sense abounds in Generation Joshua discussion threads as well, and many students see their involvement as a way to find kindred spirits and like-minded encouragement. One participant wrote, “I’ve found a place where people agree with my political views, and they are willing to stand up for them! It’s great!”

But there’s an inevitable tension between creating this powerful group identity while still preserving room for ideological diversity, or at least the room to question dogma and consider alternative perspectives. This is not to say that Nancy Pelosi should be made to feel at home, or that GenJ leadership shouldn’t advocate certain policy positions or political candidates. But if the tenor and content are so one-sided that participants would have a hard time acknowledging that someone could be a good Christian and a good Democrat, then there’s a problem. On the whole, Generation Joshua seems a good example of what political theorist Cass Sunstein describes as “ideological amplification”: like-minded group members push one another toward more extreme versions of their already-held beliefs.

Despite the prominence of HSLDA and Generation Joshua, their political-theological narrative is not the centerpiece of conservative Christian homeschooling more generally. On the whole, parents seem far more concerned with raising and educating their children “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” than creating foot soldiers for a theocratic takeover of government. Homeschool advocacy organizations (HSLDA and other conservative Christian groups in particular) are well organized and can mobilize impressive resistance to proposed policies perceived as threatening homeschool freedoms, but the fierce independence that leads many families to homeschool in the first place also creates more diversity within their ranks than outsiders might assume.

It’s also worth recognizing that communicating a compelling narrative about the world is the job of every parent, religiously-motivated or otherwise. We might call it by different names, but good parents communicate values to their children, and they do so most effectively within a broader framework or narrative about the world: this is how we should behave, this is what we should value, this is how we should live.

The open question, of course, is just how firm or flexible that narrative should be. Is there room for divergent thinking, for honest questioning of received beliefs and traditions? Outsiders often perceive conservative Christian homeschooling as a straightjacket of conformity, where kids have to toe an ideological line without the opportunity to consider other ways of being in the world. But I’ve yet to meet a homeschool parent who says she doesn’t want her children to learn to think for themselves and make their beliefs their own. I have also encountered plenty of public school students who rarely, if ever, bring a critical eye to their own way of life, their understanding of the world. Perhaps for some kids, whether homeschoolers or conventional schoolers, the capacity to step back and critically examine the culture and belief system in which they were raised won’t really develop until adulthood. The open question, of course, is what types of educational experiences beforehand, and the narratives they are couched in, will make that eventual self-awareness more or less likely.

Our democratic public square offers a diversity of narratives, and the interplay between them contributes to a vibrant marketplace of ideas. But how much of a common story needs to emerge from this dialogue? To what extent can we foster an identification and commitment to a broader public that connects all of us, while recognizing that it is our narrower communities and private identities that sustain us in ways at least as powerful and important?

Our civic challenge is not only about the content of our competing narratives, however, but also process. How do we navigate our powerful disagreements about the best ways to live? To what extent are we willing to seek common ground, or at least compromise and accommodation—especially when we have the upper hand politically? Is there room in our narratives for charitable interpretation of opposing perspectives? Or does Generation Joshua (and its liberal counterparts) have it right: democratic politics as simply an agonistic endeavor, with each side maneuvering for tactical advantage, where compromise and accommodation are simply tools employed with an eye toward eventual conquest?